Maine tourism experts say that bookings are up, and many businesses are optimistic for a strong travel season.

Easing restrictions on outdoor masking and travel into Maine, as well as increasing vaccination rates, have given the tourism industry a much-needed boost following a 2020 season which saw 27% fewer visitors.

Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of Visit Portland, said Gov. Janet Mills‘ announcement earlier this year about loosening some restrictions has led to a significant rise in bookings.

“I’ve heard many people say that as soon as the governor made the announcement of plans for reopening, and that by May 1, anyone across the U.S. would be allowed to come to Maine without quarantine or testing, that really made a difference,” she said. “The moment that was announced, phones started ringing off the hook.”

Matt Lewis, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, agreed, but explained that people were interested in traveling to Maine even before restrictions were loosened.

“We were hearing that Maine would be busy this summer before the governor relaxed the restrictions and the vaccines (were widely available). … (In) March, April, we were getting calls in our offices from people saying not ‘can I come?’ but ‘if I come do I need to do that?’ So, it wasn’t a question about whether they would still come, they had already decided they were coming.”

According to a survey distributed last week by the Maine Tourism Association, more than a fifth of 155 respondents said they expect business for Memorial Day weekend to be better than in a normal year. Almost half responded that business will be at least 75% of a normal year.

“The bookings are looking relatively strong; the travel data is really encouraging,” Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, said. “We know that Americans want to travel and that they are making plans, especially a lot of plans within the next three months. So those are all really, really encouraging signs.”

Tillotson said that many hotels in the Portland area are currently trending similarly to 2019, which was “one of the best years we had seen in a long time.”

Kathy Dyer, executive director of Maine Campground Owners Association, said that 2021 could potentially be a record-breaking season for Maine’s campgrounds.

State park campgrounds normally fill-up “very well, very fast,” Dyer said. But with a rising interest in outdoor recreation, many campgrounds across the state are seeing increased interest. Some are already completely booked with waitlists.

“It’s absolutely true that campgrounds, I think, are probably very well on their way to having maybe even the best season ever,” Dyer said.

The campground association prints 160,000 copies of the Maine Camping Guide each year. Normally, this is enough to last until September, Dyer said. As of last week, there were only 20,000 copies left of the 2021 edition. She expects they will run out by July.

“The demand for (the publication) has been phenomenal,” she said. “It’s a pretty good indication that people are looking for anything outdoors. It’s not just camping, it’s anything to get themselves outdoor with their family: hiking, biking, swimming, you name it.”

The Portland International Jetport is also planning for increased travel this summer. According to Tillotson, six carriers have added 10 additional nonstop destinations and an additional 15 flights.

In 2019, 10% of leisure travelers came to Maine by plane, according to Maine Office of Tourism statistics.

“We know that from all the industry trends that we watch, the leisure traveler is going to come back first. The leisure traveler is families and couples, and that sort of thing,” Tillotson said.

Some of these experts say that certain regions may make out better than others.

“Many of our more tourist-centric areas like Southern Maine, the Mid-coast, (and) Bar Harbor are expecting to have very busy summers, possibly even record summers,” Lewis said. “But I think the message that I would put out there is there are still parts of Maine that are not.”

Industry experts are optimistic for a successful season, however there are still several points of uncertainty which may impact tourism-generated revenue and visitation.

According to statistics published by the Maine Office of Tourism, Canadian citizens accounted for 17% of all overnight visitors and nearly one-fifth of all tourism-related retail expenditures in 2019.

In April, officials announced that the nonessential travel ban for the U.S.-Canada border would be extended until at least May 21. The reopening date has been pushed back several times since it was first implemented in March 2020.

Further extension of the travel restriction may lead to fewer visitors, particularly for popular coastal destinations like Old Orchard Beach.

“(Old Orchard Beach) got hit hard last year, because of many reasons,” Dyer said. “One of the reasons is the Canadians haven’t been able to come down with the Canadian border still closed.”

Additionally, experts say that workforce shortages exacerbated by the pandemic may mean that some businesses do not have enough staff to run at full capacity, or in some cases, serve guests to their ideal standards.

“(Staffing shortages are) going to play a huge role, not just in leaving much needed revenue on the table, but we want to make sure that people have good experiences,” Cameron said.

Workforce shortages are not new to Maine’s tourism industry, and many businesses across the country have found it difficult to hire staff for the summer.

“It’s been an ongoing (problem),” Lewis said. “I think it is definitely amplified by what’s happening currently. It’s just another factor in the storm that we’re dealing with.”

Capacity limits, too, will be a challenge for businesses. Currently, Maine’s indoor gathering capacity is set at 50%. By May 24, the restriction is set to increase to 75% of the permitted occupancy.

In restaurants, tables will still need to be spaced at least 6 feet apart regardless of the capacity allowance.

“We know that capacity limits are certainly going to affect restaurants. They’re gonna affect theaters, group tours, cruise ships, festivals and fairs, concerts, a lot of those things are still very limited. And there’s a lot of things that are still unknown,” Cameron said.

“As long as there’s capacity limits and social distancing protocols still in place, … unless those restrictions get loosened, it kind of limits business, shops. That’s just the fact, it will certainly limit business,” he added.

The success of this season is critical for many Maine businesses, including some that were unable to even open in 2020. Tillotson said this season may be a make-or-break one for many small businesses that rely on tourists.

“(Small businesses) cannot go another season without strong revenue coming in. … If COVID has taught us in Maine, anything, it’s that our state and our small businesses rely heavily on the visitor industry,” she said. “We need them to be able to come and help keep these small businesses open throughout the year.”

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